We were to play tourist again today with a visit to Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace.
Our guide proudly told us that Tiananmen Square could hold half a million people. It was nearly full when we arrived at 0900 and they were all headed for the Forbidden City. Tiananmen was built by Mao and holds his Mausoleum and bounded by the Great Hall of the People (Parliament House). There are police, security cameras and other surveillance devices in every direction. Even bag scanning to get into the vast open Square. Maybe they don’t want anyone blowing up the gardens?
We followed the crowds across the road and into the Forbidden City, the home of the Emperor and office of government until 1911. I think the last Emperor actually lived there until 1924, although having been thoroughly usurped by that stage.
The complex is vast. Getting around by bike would have been better, but with the crowds, you would not have moved far. Old Chinese, school kids and tourists crushed each other for a peak at some object mostly hidden from view in one of the major halls. Rugby training once again came to the fore. As the tour evolved our interest moved from the highlights of the Forbidden City to people watching, or more precisely the crowds in the Forbidden City.
Unfortunately our tour did not take us to the small museums that flank the great halls. I think these were virtually empty.
We decided to wander off at the end of this and miss the bus trip out to the Summer Palace. After being whisked from one tourist attraction to the next by bus, both of us felt that we had not come to grips with Beijing, so headed off on foot through the hutongs around the Bell and Drum Towers. The Towers which either boomed or peeled out the time of day for the city from the 14th century to the 1920’s were well off the main tourist track.
The hutongs are the old communities. Narrow, winding alleys and mainly singly story houses. Sewerage does not appear to be connected as each block had its own shared community toilet. From the old and decrepit to the newly gentrified, they housed the old and decrepit and the young and hip. The new Maserati parked outside of one seemed to indicate a direction for the future. Some alleys were dedicated to quirky designer shops, cafés and tea houses, others were just residential. Some had been converted to boutique hotels, while old traditional restaurants added and air of authenticity next door. We wandered for a couple of hours until we found the Great Leap Brewing Company and enjoyed a cold Pale Ale with the young and hip in a shaded courtyard.
I think that you haven’t got to grips with a city until you’ve mastered their public transport, so coming back to the hotel we decided to attack the subway system. Our biggest challenge was to find out what the nearest station was and then let the ticket machine do the rest. 3 trains and 2 transfers later we found ourselves 100m from the hotel.
Dinner was booked at a small, traditional Peking Duck restaurant in one of the hutongs. Lonely Planet gave the food high praise, but suggested that the toilets old be visited for amusement, not for use. We arrived at the appointed hour to find that there were a couple of interpretations of a booking. Ours was that they would have a table ready for us. Theirs was that they would have a duck reserved for us. Needless to say their interpretation won as our Chinese communication skills still leave a room for improvement.
After an hour we were ushered into a space that would have been more at home below decks on an old greasy trap steamer. There was an open fire at one end which was being stoke with ducks, a main dining room and a number of adjoining open spaces with staff washing up or preparing other dishes. But cleanliness was at a premium. There was a tap and small basin with spasmodically running water and a dispenser of some caustic looking goo for us to wash our hands before we handled our food. Thoughtful.
We had the duck three ways. Breast with pancakes. The other bits fried with salt and pepper and the guts made into a soup. Needless to say the food was good and the experience an education.
Tomorrow after a late start we are on the road again, but this time headed west.